The Grenada Trade Union movement has condemned in the strongest way possible Government’s decision to kick-out private schools from the Free Schoolbooks Programme.
Addressing the Senate in his maiden contribution to the 2013 Budget of Revenue and Expenditure last week Tuesday, the former Acting Director at the Government Information Service (GIS) and present Trade Union Representative in the law-making body, Raymond Roberts told the House that the decision has no merit and called for it to be rescinded.
He said the $110 million budgeted for the Ministry of Education is acceptable although he would have preferred to see the ministry get at least 15% of the one billion dollar budget.
“It is a sign that we value education, nevertheless the Grenada Trade Union Council condemn in the strongest possible way the disruption of the schoolbook programme. Absolutely no merit, no commonsense in the decision to kick out private schools students from the programme,” he added.
Sen. Roberts echoed the words of former Education Minister, Franka Alexis-Bernadine, one of the pioneers in the programme under the former National Democratic Congress (NDC) administration.
He said, the free school books was “a good programme, excellent programme, so why are you tampering with something that works for everybody? That is not a sensible way to promote education.”
Roberts called on the two month old Keith Mitchell-led New National Party (NNP) government to rescind its decision on removing the private schools from the list.
“I cannot understand why any politician would want to involve himself in something that is working to the benefit of the nation”, he said.
Roberts argued that persons who choose to send their children to private schools do so not because they are part of the high echelons of society but rather because of the convenience of the private schools systems and as such these children should not be penalised for making such decisions.
In the 2013 Budget Presentation, Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Dr Keith Mitchell announced that the “Textbooks programme will be scaled down.
As a consequence, Dr. Mitchell said Government will no longer “provide free school books to private schools.”
Dr. Mitchell noted that the previous Congress Government under the leadership of Tillman Thomas had invested heavily in the Free Textbook programme but was not sure whether it was a good thing.
“Though well intentioned, the jury is out on whether this sizable investment has resulted in better education outcomes. However there is no doubt that there has been significant wastage in this programme. Schools have received books that are not on their book list. Students have received books that they have not used. But what is even worse, this was happening when the Government could not provide basic medicines at our hospitals and clinics”, he said.
The decision regarding the Free Textbooks Programme was also discussed during the April 9 meeting of the Standing Committee on Finance in which Education Minister, Anthony Boatswain advised the meeting that he needed to make changes to the programme.
Boatswain was quoted in a document obtained by this newspaper as saying, “He (Boatswain) stated that while he appreciated the fact that there were some needy students who really need some assistance with the books, there was also a significant segment that need assistance with their uniforms as well and therefore he would like to change that heading from ‘Free School Books Programme’ to ‘Free School Books and Uniform Programme.
“He pointed out that the foremost question would be where the money come(s) from for the uniform component and in that regard, instead of asking for an additional allocation he sought to look inward to his own vote”, the minister added.
When asked about the private schools involvement in the programme, Committee Chairman (Dr Mitchell) responded as such “The Chairman gave a negative response and stated that that is not an unpopular decision to take and he thought that was unconscionable to have persons who could afford to buy schoolbooks for their children to get it free.
“He further stated that he had no problem defending the issue because persons were asked to make sacrifice, basic services to persons were not provided, money could not be found to buy medication to save lives and therefore that would be unacceptable”, he said.
The NNP government says that focus will be shifted from textbooks to tablets over the next few years and will therefore place strong emphasis on teacher training in ICT.
The Mitchell administration also allocated $1 million to provide school uniforms for needy children and the transportation allocation, which was not disclosed, will be increased.
In addition, Government increased the School Feeding Programme from $2.5 million to $3.1 million and described it as critical to feeding the nation’s children who attend school with an empty stomach.
The Standing Committee also discussed and agreed to the return of the School Gardening Programme with the involvement of the Churches.